Longtime suspect charged in 1986 abduction, murder of missing 4-year-old South Carolina girl

LEXINGTON, S.C. — A North Carolina man has been accused of kidnapping and murder more than 35 years after he allegedly abducted a 4-year-old South Carolina girl from her bed as she slept.

Thomas Eric McDowell, 61, was arrested Thursday morning at his home in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He is accused of snatching Jessica Suzanne Gutierrez from her family’s Lexington, South Carolina home in June 1986.

The girl’s body has never been found. If she were alive, she would be 40 years old.

McDowell remained Wednesday in the Wake County Jail awaiting extradition to South Carolina. According to the Wake Forest Police Department, he is charged with murder, kidnapping and burglary.

McDowell, who was a family acquaintance, was a longtime suspect in the case. He was 27 years old when Jessica vanished, according to The Charley Project, which profiles missing persons cases.

His fingerprint was found on the window of the bedroom where Jessica slept the night she vanished, the site states. The News & Observer in Raleigh reported that the print was matched to McDowell after he was convicted in 1987 of rape in North Carolina.

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North Carolina prison records indicate McDowell served about 10 years in prison and was released in April 1997. He was never charged in the Gutierrez case, though he remained a suspect.

Court records show that McDowell and his siblings grew up subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. His older brother, Charles E. McDowell Jr., was sent to California’s death row in 1984.

Charles McDowell, who went by Eddie, brutally stabbed a neighbor’s housekeeper, Paula Rodriguez, to death May 20, 1982, during an attempted rape in the Los Angeles home where she worked. He was arrested later that same day.

Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon said his cold case detectives took a fresh look at the case in September, when members of the FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team and prosecutors with the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office arrived in Lexington.

More than 3,500 pages of the case file were reviewed over the subsequent months, and agents from 10 FBI field offices became involved.

“SLED agents also joined us in reviewing initial reports and interviewing more than 125 people,” Koon said in a statement. “Because of the work we did, coming together as a team, we were able to sort and connect more pieces of the puzzle about what happened to Jessica all those years ago.”

The case will be prosecuted by the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office.

‘The man with the magic hat’

Jessica’s mother, Debra Gutierrez, awoke the morning of June 6, 1986, to find her daughter missing from the bed where she’d slept with her two sisters. According to a video on the case released last June, Gutierrez asked her other children if they knew where Jessica was, but they did not.

Jessica’s 6-year-old sister told their mother “the man with the magic hat and the beard” had taken Jessica, the Charley Project’s case history states.

“Rebecca, now an adult, remembers seeing a man lift Jessica out of the bed and carry her away,” according to the site. “She stated the man was able to do this without waking Jessica. Rebecca had been too frightened by what she saw to tell anyone until the next morning, when Jessica was discovered missing.”

Gutierrez called family members over to the house, but no one could find her daughter. The family called the sheriff’s office, but deputies were also unable to find the girl.

Investigators later determined that someone had entered the family’s mobile home sometime between 11:30 p.m. the night before and 9 a.m., when Gutierrez found Jessica gone. The abductor removed the window screen and curtains from a living room window and climbed inside.

After taking the sleeping girl, the kidnapper left with her through the front door, the lead investigator, Sgt. David Pritchard, said in the 2021 video.

“To just all of a sudden put your kids to bed and wake up one morning and one of them is gone, you know, you don’t understand it,” a tearful Gutierrez said in the footage. “Everything is happening like a whirlwind. You don’t know what to do.”

Authorities searched by land and by air for the little girl.

“There was no trace of her found whatsoever,” Pritchard said.

‘If you don’t have a body, you’re just stuck’

Gutierrez initially blamed her ex-boyfriend, with whom she had ended a relationship a few days prior to Jessica’s disappearance, the Charley Project states.

“Debra accused her ex-boyfriend of abducting Jessica, but he said he had no idea where she was,” the case synopsis states. “The man was questioned repeatedly by police, but never charged. Jessica’s father was ruled out as a suspect in the case, as he had been living in California at the time of her abduction.”

McDowell was also suspected, in part because of the fingerprint.

Gutierrez told detectives she cleaned the windows of the home every night.

Watch a video about the Jessica Gutierrez case below.

“In 1987, McDowell allegedly told a cellmate that he had kidnapped a girl in Lexington County and buried her body in a landfill there,” the Charley Project reports. “He mentioned that he was wearing a tall cowboy hat at the time of the kidnapping.

“His cellmate told authorities about his statements, and when police confronted McDowell, he offered to confess if he got immunity from prosecution for the crime. Immunity was denied, and McDowell did not speak any further on the subject.”

Lexington County authorities did not give details of any new evidence against McDowell that may have led to his arrest.

In last year’s video, Gutierrez shone a light on the number of missing children in the United States. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children reports that, while there are no reliable data on the true number of missing children in the U.S., there were 365,348 children reported missing in 2020.

The majority of those reported missing to the NCMEC are children who run away, the agency said.

Cases where children remain missing long-term are relatively rare, but their impact is enormous.

“I want people to understand, there’s a lot of missing kids out here,” Gutierrez said in the video. “I love and miss my daughter so much, and I know other families do, too.”

Pritchard said at the time that it was up to law enforcement officials to give the grieving mother the closure she needs for the remainder of her life to be peaceful.

“No day is easy,” Gutierrez said. “My kids will say, ‘Hey, your grandson’s playing ball, you want to come?’ And I’m, like, ‘Nah,’ you know? I’m just so consumed with this.

“I’m 35 years deep in this, trying to find my daughter. And I want my daughter back. I don’t think I’m asking for much.”

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Upon learning of McDowell’s arrest, Gutierrez told the News & Observer that she is relieved.

“I’m glad God brought me to see it,” she told the newspaper. “I prayed he would bring me through it, and we’ve waited for this a long time.”

She said she has held out hope for more than three decades that somehow, her daughter was still alive.

“After 20-some-odd years, I had to prepare myself to think she was dead,” Gutierrez said. “But I was never prepared for that. I had hope still. If you don’t have a body, you’re just stuck in the middle.”

Even after McDowell’s arrest, Gutierrez said she has a long way to go before she can rest.

“My older daughter said, ‘Maybe now we can pull the curtains back and let in some sunshine,’” she told the paper. “But I’m not there yet. For every one of him out there, there’s 90 more behind him.

“I can’t get rid of all of them. But I got one of them off the street.”

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